At 9.30am tomorrow morning in Westminster Hall, there will be a very important debate taking place that is based on a petition that is calling for Parliament to “Hold a public inquiry into Government contracts granted during Covid-19“. We are clearly a long way from a public inquiry but the fact that the debate is taking place so soon is certainly an important element. The petition which is available here has been growing slowly since I first saw it which was on the 25th October alerted by a friend of mine called Colin Miller. At that point it had nearly 30,000 signatures. It was 9 days after the 10,000 signatures had been achieved. It reached 100,000 signatures nearly 3 weeks later on 11th November and it took until that point before the Government chose to respond to its requirement to respond to 10,000+ signatures. The response from the Government which was nearly a month late was headlined with “The National Audit Office, the public spending watchdog, is currently looking into Government procurement activity during the COVID-19 pandemic.” The full response is reproduced lower down and indeed a week later as I wrote here how the Parliamentary group that is responsible for petitions had reacted to the Cabinet Office response by writing
Dear Ian Chisnall, You recently signed the petition “Hold a public inquiry into Government contracts granted during Covid-19”. The Petitions Committee (the group of MPs who oversee the petitions system) have considered the Government’s response to this petition. They felt that the response did not directly address the request of petition and have therefore written back to the Government to ask them to provide a revised response. When the Committee have received a revised response from the Government, this will be published on the website and you will receive an email. Thanks,
So far there has not been a revised response that I have seen, but nevertheless the signatures which have now nearly got to 115,000 provides sufficient reason for a debate to take place. The email that alerted us to tomorrows debate arrived at 1.44am this morning from Parliament which stated
“MPs will debate an NAO report into government procurement during the Covid-19 pandemic on Wednesday 9 December in Westminster Hall. This will be a general debate. General debates allow MPs to debate important issues, however they do not end in a vote nor can they change the law. The debate will start at 9.30am and last up to 90 minutes.”
The debate can be seen by all of us from this location. The NAO (National Audit Office) website is here, I cannot spot their report on this subject as yet. However given that many Sussex people have signed the petition we clearly now need a wide range of Sussex MPs to raise the concerns of their constituents about this issue. Clearly none of the five Governmental MPs will speak so that leaves 11 others who are able to do so. While we wait for tomorrows debate the text from the Cabinet Office is as follows.
Working with the private sector has been a vital part of the Government’s response to tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, with private sector workers standing alongside those from the public sector on the front line. Indeed, the private sector has assisted us to deliver over 15,000 ventilators in under four months to support the NHS; procure 32 billion items of PPE for healthcare workers; and increase testing capacity to 519,770 by the end of October.
Being able to procure at speed has been critical in providing that response and at the outset of the coronavirus outbreak, we made it clear to all public authorities that they may need to procure new services with extreme urgency. This is not a change to the public procurement regulations; there are already well-established procedures in the Public Contracts Regulations for handling extremely urgent procurements and they have been used by a variety of public authorities including the UK Government.
We also made it clear that authorities must continue to achieve value for money for taxpayers, use good commercial judgement and publish the details of any awards made, in line with Government transparency guidelines. All contracts over £10,000 are published on Contracts Finder on GOV.UK
The Government is committed to adopting and encouraging greater transparency in its commercial activity. There are existing rigorous central controls in place to challenge spend robustly and to ensure that the actions of Government contracting authorities are open, fair and transparent.
The National Audit Office has commenced an independent investigation to set out the facts relating to government procurement during the COVID-19 pandemic covering the period up to 31 July 2020. This will include, among other things, an assessment of procurement activity during the pandemic and the Government’s management of procurement risks. The report will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny by the Public Accounts Committee in the usual way.